I am just writing in a notebook – sometimes just a brief response to a small but intense experience; or a much more detailed account of a longer journey.
Santiago de Chile. One last day before the journey to the fin del mundo is over. We don’t know the city at all and it seems too huge for a quick sample, so instead we plan a day trip to the coast and drive through the flowering fields of Californian poppy, vines, orchards and a national park forest to the port city of Valparaiso.
“Valpo” has been described as gritty and groovy. It is both. Many of the city’s iconic and historical neighbourhoods and buildings have seen better days.
Prior to the opening of the Panama Canal it was certainly a very significant 19th Century port town and the architecture reflects the influence of its European immigrants and also, its naval importance.
There is now much urban renewal and the fortunes of the city are again rising. Many of the buildings in the faded hilltop “hoods” are being revitalised.
Valparaiso is definitely on the tourist route in summer.
With its historical buildings and monuments, arts scene, shops, cafes, bars, boutique hotels and nightlife it does not disappoint.
The funiculars – the oldest operating since 1883 – provide quirky, creaky access to locations such as Cerro Concepcion.
Side by side are beautifully restored colonial buildings, brightly painted houses with their bohemian vibe, walls of street art and political graffiti.
As in many other places in South America, sleeping dogs lie undisturbed in any convenient spot.
Back in Santiago on the last evening before our departure we sample just a little of Barrio Lastarria before dinner.
A stroll in the park close to the hotel, an appreciation of colonial influences on the architecture (Museo de Bellas Artes); then an empanada and a pisco sour, the music of a street performance ……..the journey is over.
“This is all. In the distance someone is singing. In the distance.” Pablo Neruda
Images of a wild and beautiful place, the urging of a former guide in South America, and a romantic notion of the “uttermost ends of the earth” – all were convincing – so we followed the adrenalin rush of our experiences with Cruceros Australia to Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn with a visit to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine – a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1978 – and more time in amazing Patagonia.
Our drive from El Calafate in Argentina on the first day provided a gradual introduction to the unique environments of the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctica region, including Patagonian steppe, Pre-Andean scrubland, Magellan forest, glaciers and watercourses.
But nothing could quite prepare us for the location of the Tierra Patagonia Hotel on the shores of Lake Sarmiento and the ever present magnificence of the peaks or for the soft (but nonetheless amazing) adventure of a few more days at the end of the world.
Tierra Patagonia Hotel is uniquely placed to provide visitors to the national park with an uninterrupted vista stretching from Paine Grande, including the “Cuernos” (horns), the “Torres” (towers), the Almirante Nieto and Nido de Condor.
The weather here can be notoriously changeable with bone chilling winds – it was not.
We saw sunrise, sunset, moon rise and moon set, reflections in lakes and the mesmerising presence of the peaks of the Paine Massif from different perspectives as we travelled on excursions, a navigation, hikes and on horseback throughout the park. We were spellbound by the 360 degree picture postcard moments but also felt utterly privileged to go out each day with our very experienced guides.
Thursday afternoon – arrival day – Cornisas (Cornices) hike
From this plateau we had stunning views of las Torres del Paine, Sierra Contreras and Sierra del Torro. The sky was blue, the breeze fresh but light and the condors were soaring and performing for the cameras.
The unmarked trail was strewn with small flowering plants, the most notable the red mate guanacos.
Our expert guide was relaxed but reassuring as we made a skidding, zigzag descent.
Friday morning – Hunters Trail
After a frosty start, the weather was again unbelievably bright, sunny and calm.
The trail gave us a chance to pass close to herds of guanacos.
A key focus was a visit to the rocky outcrop with “pinturas repestros de Aonikenk” – cave paintings of a native people who were hunter gatherers and occupied the area some 6,000 years ago.
Again, the initial descent was a little challenging. It then became obvious that we were in the territory of a hunter – the puma (the predator of the guanaco).
The grassy sierra was strewn with their remains – some recent kills. According to our guide, the nervous behaviour of the guanacos also indicated that a puma was not so far away.
Friday afternoon – Laguna Azul
There was a relaxing option after lunch. A drive north to the Blue Lagoon, stopping along the way at the Paine waterfall – such a powerful, deafening surge of water and an exhilarating experience to walk along the path and feel the spray on our faces.
The picnic spot in the forest above the lake had more breathtaking views.
A curious (and obviously scavenging) Caracara approached us hopefully.
The picnic spread provided by the hotel included a refreshingly crisp white wine. Pure pleasure.
Saturday – full day including navigation on Lago Grey
A very long day but there was so much to see and do! The drive included stops along Lago Pehoe, views of another impressive waterfall on the Rio Paine, an informative visit to the administration centre of the park (CONAF), a “typical” lunch at Rio Serrano, a forest walk, a (stony) beach walk and a trip aboard the Grey II on the lake right up to the Grey Glacier.
We boarded the boat late in the afternoon for the cruise to the glacier.
The little boat was crowded and there was the usually difficulty for the photographers to that ‘perfect’ shot.
The sky again was a brilliant blue and the skyline of the Paine Grande was imposing. The boat manoeuvred among the ice floes along each face of the glacier – it was an amazing, if slightly unnerving experience to hear the ice crunching under the bow.
We would have appreciated a guide aboard the boat. This was not provided but the friendly crew offered pisco sours with clinking glacier ice.
Sunday – Baguales and Estancia Lazo
Our last day in this beautiful hotel – an option was to simply relax and experience its picture perfect location, sympathetic eco design immersed in the landscape with spa, library, relaxation areas, extensive picture windows overlooking the lake, dining room and bar. BUT we opted to go out again. In the morning after an interesting drive we reached a higher altitude and walked beside a stream looking for fossils.
We were outside the park and crossed the boundaries of estancias. Wild horses roamed freely.
In the afternoon, eager for one last opportunity to be out in the park we spent a couple of hours horse riding accompanied by our guide and a couple of local gauchos, through ancient forest of lenga trees to a lookout point.
On the drive to the estancia (and during the drive south to Punta Arenas the next day) it was quite confronting to see how much of the forest has fallen victim to massive fires (2011) and ongoing destruction caused by a parasite (commonly called Chinese lantern).
Monday – departure
Soft clouds were dimming the brilliance of the southern sky and the wind was beginning to rise. It was time to leave. As a parting gesture, the manager handed me a password. It was the key to my ongoing connection to this land. If I chose to activate the link, Tierra Patagonia Hotel would plant a tree on my behalf as part of a renewal program for the depleted forest.
Our guide drove us on the long road south to Punta Arenas through a rather desolate open countryside of immense sheep stations. We turned for one last look at las Torres del Paine (towers of blue)), the condors wheeled in the air in farewell and flamingos provided a surprise flash of pink in the landscape.
Faithful pairs of upland geese were a constant reminder of a land appearing dry and desolate but carrying so much water in its lagoons, lakes, streams, rivers and glaciers – I added my tears in farewell.
“Why then – and this is not only my particular case – does this barren land possess my mind? I find it hard to explain…but it might partly be because it enhances the horizons of imagination.” Charles Darwin.